The Sixers got a great President of Basketball Operations in Daryl Morey. They built an impressive coaching staff with Doc Rivers, Sam Cassell, Dave Joerger, and Dan Burke. Elton Brand remains in the organization while Peter Dinwiddie, Prosper Karangwa, and Jameer Nelson join the front office.
On paper, they’ve won this offseason in the coaching and front office departments. To end up with Morey, Rivers, and that group of coaches is impressive considering the fact that they did it backwards, hiring the coach before the President and other new executives.
One thing that hasn’t changed, yet, is the Sixers roster, which is big, clunky, and can’t shoot. 34 year old Al Horford has three years remaining on a bad contract that pays him about $27 million per year. Tobias Harris is on a max deal that carries him to 2024. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are on their big-money contracts, too, which means there’s not a lot of wiggle room for Morey, who loves to wheel and deal and trade players and assets.
On the court, the Morey addition could not present more of a hard swing from one end of the basketball spectrum to the other. Brett Brown’s Sixers teams played a base motion offense that used a healthy dose of dribble hand-offs, horns sets, and off-ball movement, and he created a squad that originally excelled in transition with non-shooter Simmons driving, collapsing, and kicking out to perimeter players. The trailing three was open for Embiid all day long, and sometimes he’d hit those, but other times people would be screaming for him to get his “ass down on the block,” where he’d inevitably be double teamed and still average 20+ points per game. Offensively, the Sixers were at their best with the Robert Covington/JJ Redick/Dario Saric lineup, surrounding their star pair with a sniper, three and D wing, and stretch four to the tune of a 115.4 offensive rating and 20.4 net rating, which is incredibly potent and hasn’t been matched in the two seasons since.
They got away from that this past season, adding the redundant Horford and a solid two-way player in Josh Richardson who just didn’t shoot the ball at a clip the Sixers needed from their two guard. Harris was often a third-choice who played well more often than not, but just didn’t match the salary he was earning.
On the flip side, the Rockets went so hard into 2020 small ball that they weren’t even starting a center in the playoffs. They surrounded James Harden with Russell Westbrook, Covington, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon, then went to an assortment of Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and Ben McLemore off the bench. They’d fire up 45.3 three pointers per game, which very easily led the NBA. The Sixers, by comparison, only shot 31.6 threes per game, which was 22nd.
Here are a couple of other stats to show the disparity between the teams:
- free throw attempts per game: Rockets 26.1 (#2), Sixers 22.4 (21st)
- turnovers: Rockets 14.7 (15th), Sixers 14.2 (10th)
- field goal attempts: Rockets 90.4 (8th), Sixers 87.9 (25th)
- defensive rating: Rockets 109.8 (15th), Sixers 108.4 (8th)
- offensive rating: Rockets 112.5 (6th), Sixers 110.7 (14th)
- assist percentage: Rockets 53 (29th), Sixers 62.8 (8th)
- PACE: Rockets 104.04 (2nd), Sixers 99.59 (20th)
- points in the paint: Rockets 45.9 per game (22nd), Sixers 47.5 (17th)
- second chance points: Rockets 12.1 (24th), Sixers 13.1 (17th)
- fast break points: Rockets 14.6 per game (9th), Sixers 13.5 (12th)
- % of field goal attempts from three: Rockets 50.1% (#1), Sixers 36% (21st)
So on and so forth.
The irony is that the Sixers used to be really good at a lot of the same things, when Brett Brown had a roster that fit his style more closely. The other level of irony is that Brown took Mike D’Antoni concepts and added those to his offense, but was then given a roster that didn’t match any of those philosophies at all. And a third level of irony is that when D’Antoni was linked to the open Sixers job last month, he was similar to what the Sixers just had in Brown, but would have inherited the same flawed roster.
However, the notion that Morey doesn’t like bigs is probably misguided. That might be the case in recent years, but he paid good money to Clint Capela, pre-trade, and won a lot of games with Yao Ming, pre-injury. He found success with Luis Scola and the analytically-backed extremely small ball/three point style wasn’t introduced until 2019, if we’re being honest.
Either way, it’ll be difficult for Embiid and Simmons, a big adjustment. They’ve only ever played for one NBA coach, and that coach ran an offense that’s atypical of what you see around the NBA. Embiid is an elite DHO screener but a nascent pick and roll screener. Simmons has run brush cuts and niche pick and roll plays as a ball handler, but is also very raw in those sets, and if Tobias Harris is involved, it means one of Embiid or Simmons is standing in the corner, or on the perimeter. The iso-heavy, spread pick and roll style you see teams like Brooklyn and Houston using is the polar opposite of what Philly did over the years, and it doesn’t necessarily fit their personnel right now.
As a quick example, James Harden wasn’t running off double staggers and then playing the second side like this in Houston:
In this case, Morey is going to either have to adapt to the roster he’s inheriting, in sync with Doc Rivers, or make a blockbuster trade or two to recreate last year’s Rockets. How much of their style was influenced by him, and how much by D’Antoni? Is Doc Rivers interested in playing small ball? Is it even feasible with this personnel group?
There are a lot of interesting things to talk about and think about. Sixers fans should be excited and re-energized by these hires, but cautious optimism is probably the path forward, since this roster needs a lot of work.